Friday, July 26, 2019

Mad about "Mad"

 My father didn’t approve of Mad magazine. As the child of immigrants, and someone immensely grateful for the blessings he’d enjoyed as a citizen of the United States, he was drawn—especially in his later years—to entertainment that was uplifting and non-provocative. (The Music Man and The Sound of Music were special favorites.)

My dad’s middle-of-the-road tastes are doubtless one perverse reason I gravitated toward art that made waves. By the time I was in my teens, I was discovering avant-garde poetry, esoteric novels, tough-minded theatre (think Edward Albee’s brand-new Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?),  and arty foreign-language cinema. And, it went without saying, Mad. To be honest, its occasional grotesquerie didn’t always tickle my funny-bone. The tit-for-tat comic violence of “Spy Versus Spy” was a bit too real for my taste, and I wasn’t much of a Don Martin fan. (I still remember, though, one especially inspired cartoon, in which a typically crazed-looking Don Martin mad scientist holds aloft a frothing beaker and announces that by quaffing its contents he will turn himself into a creature of unspeakable horror. He drinks—but nothing happens. Disgusted, he pours the concoction down the lab sink, which instantly turns . . . into a toilet.)

 What I loved was the wit and slightly skewed wisdom of Dave Berg’s “The Lighter Side” features, and, of course, Mad’s movie parodies, the work of the irreplaceable Mort Drucker. I’m happy to report, via my browsing of Wikipedia, that Drucker is still living in Brooklyn at age 90, and that his covers for Time magazine, reflecting his skill as a political caricaturist, are now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. Reportedly, in a 1985 Tonight Show appearance, Johnny Carson asked Michael J. Fox, "When did you really know you'd made it in show business?"  Fox’s prompt reply: "When Mort Drucker drew my head."

Drucker’s movie parodies were always clever, but what really made them soar was his ability to capture the physical characteristics of Hollywood’s most famous players. As the author of Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation, I loved learning that director Mike Nichols didn’t realize how much his subconscious was contributing to The Graduate until he came upon “this hilarious issue of Mad magazine . . . in which the caricature of Dustin says to the caricature of Elizabeth Wilson, ‘Mom, how come I’m Jewish and you and Dad aren’t?’” And I still remember fondly how one of other great films of 1967, Bonnie and Clyde, was turned by Drucker into “Balmy and Clod.” The depictions of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were spot-on, and I loved how Bonnie’s real-life doggerel about their romantic life as robbers on the run was turned into something like this: “Clod and Balmy, Clod and Balmy/ Gentle as rain and strong as salami.”

But my all-time favorite Drucker parody featured his imaginative re-tread of 1961’s West Side Story. Instead of merely caricaturing Natalie Wood, Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and the other Jets and Sharks, Drucker had the brilliant idea of  turning the story of rival New York street gangs into “East Side Story,” with the bodies of Hollywood actors now crowned with the faces of global political leaders, those who would normally be assembling at the United Nations on Manhattan’s eastern shore. Jack Kennedy led one gang of dancing thugs; Nikita Khrushchev headed up the other.  Cold War-era songs included “When you’re a Red  you’re a Red all the way . . .”  How long ago it now seems, and how innocent. What, me worry?   

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